I was over the moon when Boris Johnson laid out of the rules of lockdown. Without a balcony or garden, I expected to shrivel under an Italian, Spanish, or French-style lockdown-cum-prison-sentence. I rejoiced that the UK government understood how essential being outdoors is to physical and mental health. Now, however, households have received a letter from the PM warning that lockdown measures could be tightened if necessary.
While there’s no doubt some have flouted social distancing rules, my guess is the vast majority are doing their best to stay two metres apart when out and about. Those who live in crowded cities, however, don’t always have the luxury of space to do this.
Here in Manchester a friend of mine lives in Ancoats, the city’s fashionable new quarter with new apartment blocks but no public park. Unsurprisingly, residents have been taking their daily exercise at New Islington Marina, where it doesn’t take too many to overwhelm the area’s thin strip of nature. My friend’s toddler nearly toppled into the water after a close pass with a jogger attempting to maintain social distance from someone else.
It would be a mistake to tackle this issue by banning outdoor exercise, however. Research tells us what we all know intuitively: time spent outdoors boosts the immune system, reduces stress and anxiety, and improves sleep and focus. It’s critical for getting the population through this crisis in reasonable shape.
This is why cities around the world are closing roads to traffic so the public have more space to safely walk, run, and cycle. Last week, New York City closed four major roads precisely for the reason of “promoting social distancing and giving people more walking space”. Although the governor had called people failing to follow the social distancing guidelines “arrogant” and “self-destructive”, he recognised the answer wasn’t to clamp down further but to open up space to enable social distancing outdoors. Other American cities have quickly followed suit, with streets being closed to traffic across the country.
Cycling has also taken off under lockdown, with bike shops experiencing a boom in business. After witnessing a surge in cycling as commuters took to their bikes to avoid public transport due to Covid 19, NYC created new pop up bike lanes in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Meanwhile, Mexico City is considering similar measures, and Berlin has widened bike lanes. Bogota is leading the way with the 47 miles of additional cycle lanes they quickly built in response to the crisis. These cities have recognised the potential of the bicycle for commuting and exercise; with fewer cars on the road, expanding cycling capacity is a no brainer. Here in the UK, bike shops have made headlines for their free bike hire schemes to NHS staff.
No UK city, however, has yet taken the step of closing roads to cars, despite a nearly 75 per cent drop in car use since lockdown began. Cities in the US are also still resistant. In Massachusetts, Cambridge City Council delayed a vote on closing a parkway to cars after a minority of councillors objected. One councillor argued encouraging people onto the streets conflicts with orders to “shelter in place” (that is, American for ‘lockdown’), while another made the absurd argument that perspiring runners could endanger senior citizens they pass.
Apart from the obvious health benefits already mentioned, another important reason to close streets to vehicular traffic is to protect pedestrians and cyclists from speeding cars. Empty roads have led to an uptick in speeding that poses a far greater risk to public safety than sweaty joggers. Reckless driving also risks overstretching the NHS even further. This is also why many are arguing speed limits should be reduced.
In cities like NYC and Bogota, some suggest the closed streets and new cycle networks could become permanent after lockdown ends. The coronavirus could be the shock required to reclaim the streets for people, accelerating a trend already taking place around the world. This would help maintain improved air quality levels and move us away from a car-dependent and congestion-ridden society.
In the immediate future, UK cities must give more streets over to people so city dwellers can weather this storm. Rather than bring in more restrictive lockdown measures and ban our exercise, the first move must be to free up more space for people to safely get outdoors and maintain social distance. Other cities around the world are doing it. When will the UK?